On New Year’s Eve, I found myself in a conversation with two boldface Philadelphia names, and somehow the talk turned from Chip Kelly’s stunning flameout to a particularly vexing question: Just what is our city’s greatest challenge?
The obvious answers filled the air. Poverty. Schools. Pensions. And then one of them took a longer view: “You know what it really is?” he said. “Overcoming incrementalism.”
“That’s good,” the other agreed. “‘Good enough’ keeps us from doing transformational things.”
For days, I ruminated over that exchange. I thought of it in the aftermath of Mayor Kenney’s Inaugural speech. Both The Daily News and Citified weighed in with perceptive critiques of Kenney’s small ball prescription for the city, especially when he defined his guiding “vision” as delivering “efficient, effective services to all Philadelphians.” That’s not a vision, it’s what ought to be expected.
Kenney’s personal narrative is inspiring—the South Philly kid evolved into progressive unifier—but if ever you needed confirmation that the 2015 campaign was a status quo, rather than a change, election Kenney’s speech provided it. Much has been written about how different Kenney and Nutter are; in actuality, as leaders, they seem very much alike. A couple of risk-averse managers.
When was the last time someone we elected went all JFK on us and told us to “ask not”? When was the last time you felt like someone you elected appealed to the better angels of your nature and gave you permission to stand for something bigger than yourself?
What I was hoping to hear was a call to action. That’s what seems to be missing from our politics and our civic life: Calls for us—you and me—to get involved and stand for something bigger than our own small wants. Both our gubernatorial and mayoral primaries felt like Saturday Night Live parodies of political pandering, with candidates trying to outdo one another in their fealty to different voting blocs.
Kenney’s mutual Inaugural shout-outs to Black Lives Matter and the cops didn’t feel principled so much as contrived, like strategic offsets, the checking of boxes. When was the last time someone we elected went all JFK on us and told us to “ask not”? When was the last time you felt like someone you elected appealed to the better angels of your nature and gave you permission to stand for something bigger than yourself?
In that sense, maybe the answer to that New Year’s Eve question is that our greatest challenge just may lie in combatting a very Philly response: What’s in it for me?
We’re a more transactional town than most, and it’s not just in our politics that the what’s in it for me refrain seems to dominate. We see it in the way business leaders avert their eyes when they could be exerting political influence, and we see it in the way nonprofits cower before the political class instead of demanding more from it. It’s a deeply ingrained response in a town where power is disproportionately political, and sometimes when such outsourcing of leadership happens it’s not even conscious.
A few weeks ago, we took a busload of young and young-at-heart disruptors to Pennsylvania Society, the annual, and exclusive, New York City soiree of our state’s political, business and civic elite. We called it an “Innovation Invasion” and the purpose was to try and introduce a new class of leaders to the usual suspects, to expand the number of seats at our civic problem-solving table. It was a knock on the establishment’s door, rather than a middle finger. Technical.ly Philly wrote a thoughtful piece about the sojourn, but something felt off about writer Juliana Reyes’ point of view. Precisely what didn’t hit me until after Kenney’s Inaugural.
“Does the tech scene even need the PA Society?” Reyes wrote. “In a way, bringing a group of technologists to the gala sends the message that we buy into its importance. It’s not disrupting any old guard. It’s promoting them, playing right into the exclusive house they’ve built, when the message should actually be: Tear that shit down…We’re not saying that technologists shouldn’t work with politicians. Efforts like the city’s StartUp PHL early-stage seed fund and the state’s Innovate in PA venture investment program have come from the tech scene working with government…”
It was an oddly familiar point of view. If you agree that part of Philadelphia’s problem has been the branch office nature of our business community and its attendant absenteeism from our larger civic life—in Atlanta, for example, Coke, Home Depot and Turner has often had Mayor Kasim Reed’s back when he’s tried to take on the politics as usual crowd—then this point of view is actually an endorsement of that status quo. “Tear that shit down” just becomes a hipper way of asking “What’s in it for me?” if you’re not willing to get engaged and make our politics better.
Asking if the tech scene needs the political establishment is precisely the wrong question—and one that too many other groups have long asked here. The right question is: What can I do to help make our politics, and thus our city, better?
This is actually an idea that is ascendant right now in tech: That, as California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom outlines in his book Citizenville: How To Take The Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government and as former DC Mayor Adrian Fenty is doing now in Silicon Valley (where he’s also dating Steve Jobs’ widow), it’s all well and good to develop gadgets that make already privileged lives ever more convenient, but imagine the payoff if the disruption that characterizes the startup world infiltrated, say, the halls of Congress or even our own City Council. Newsom says serving in government “de-geniuses you.” But what if an army of geniuses, rather than tearing down PA Society, took it over and made it work for the common good?
Seen that way, asking if the tech scene needs the political establishment is precisely the wrong question—and one that too many other groups have long asked here. The right question is: What can I do to help make our politics, and thus our city, better?
In his Inaugural, Kenney was right to say that we’re stronger when we’re all rowing in one direction. Out of the many, one…right? But we’ve long held ourselves back by limiting how we see ourselves. Notice Reyes’ language: Technologists. But it wasn’t a busload of technologists. It was a busload of local patriots and change agents, which included some technologists. The purpose was to “ask not,” to revisit JFK’s long-ago challenge. Of course, Pres. Kennedy followed that call with concrete asks, everything from the Peace Corps to a race to the moon. Leaders know that their followers want to be led.
In New York this week, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the biggest and boldest infrastructure project in that state’s history. “What happens tomorrow depends on what we do today,” he said. “Let’s be as bold and ambitious as our forefathers before us.”
He eschewed incrementalism at the same time that he asked his constituents to do something: Think, and even dream, big. And foot the bill for those dreams.
We know what Kenney plans to do: Gently steer a ship that instead requires a strong new direction. But what is it that we can do? What should Kenney, in his Inauguration speech, have asked of us? I’ve put out a special call to those disruptors from the bus—#TheNewGuard—to weigh in here, but we want to hear from everyone and anyone. What should our leaders ask of us? What should our patriotic call to arms be?
Give us your suggestions in the comments below, or by tweeting us @thephilacitizen.
Header Photo via Pixabay